Art, Literature, and Bearing Witness: Richard Doyle’s Letters and Walt Whitman's War Diary

This is a guest post by Michael Healy, a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

As a student of the various strands of modernism in the early twentieth century, I found that an early version of one such strand was most prominent among the many nineteenth-century manuscripts I read through and cataloged in the summer of 2018 in the Reading Room at the Morgan: the sense that art and literature grow out of the vivid witness and keen observation of events happening around us all the time, some recorded in official histories and others not. And so I was fascinated and excited to find that an illustrator and a poet who were roughly contemporary but lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Richard Doyle (1824–1883) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892), both believed in this view and regularly put it into practice in their works.

I spent the majority of the summer in the Reading Room cataloging the weekly letters of Richard Doyle and his brothers Henry and Charles to their father, John, which they wrote as an assignment in the Doyle family’s creative educational program. In his more than fifty illustrated letters from 1842 and 1843, written when he was only in his late teens, Doyle is already quite outspoken in terms of his aesthetic opinions. He is particularly preoccupied with what he views as insufficient investment and achievement in historical painting in England when compared with France, Italy, and Germany. Such a concern might be trivial for other artists and critics, but Doyle finds that there “is something so new in large historical designs” (2 June 1843), and so he feels a lack when he goes to an exhibition of English paintings and notes that they don’t feel like “real representations of the events [...] there does not appear to be any historical feeling about them [...] the personages of history were done in such nondescript sorts of dresses that they never could give you a proper Idea of the people of the time” (25 June 1843). This criticism grows out of a comparative assessment of French and English painting he had made nearly a year before, in which he found that the former “appear to seize upon an idea and work it through thick and thin,” while his countrymen “don’t appear at all fond of choosing subjects of historical interest” (24 July 1842).

It is not hard to see the young Doyle already imagining his future career as an illustrator as a partial solution to the problem of the under-utilized artistic abilities of the English. Luckily for us, Doyle found inspiration all around him in the big events (he and his brothers regularly attended exhibitions, opera and other music performances, military reviews) and smaller but no less fascinating oddities (he claims to have seen a dog smoking a pipe) that constitute urban life in London and its environs. A couple of his attempts to bear witness to the events of his day are among the most interesting illustrations included in the letters: for instance, in the following letters, he depicts two visits to see a touring temperance preacher, Father Theobald Mathew, in the late summer of 1843.

MA 3315, Letter 42: An autograph letter from Richard Doyle: [London], to his father, John Doyle, 1840–1845.

MA 3315, Letter 45: An autograph letter from Richard Doyle: [London], to his father, John Doyle, 1840–1845.

For a few days toward the end of my time in the Reading Room, I had the pleasure of perusing the Morgan's collection of some of Walt Whitman’s writing on the Civil War. Though Whitman is more well-known than Doyle today, only a small portion of his readership is aware of his service tending to the wounded in the hospitals of Washington, D.C., during the war. I've been a devotee of Whitman since first encountering his work in high school nearly twenty years ago, but the experience of reading through sections of his war diary (specifically, selections he had compiled in preparation for a magazine piece), which included descriptions of soldiers’ stoicism in the face of death, Whitman’s letters to their relatives, and even very brief biographical sketches of some of the soldiers (e.g. a former slave from Virginia who was enlisted in the Union Army and planned to return home after the war), was incredibly moving in ways I hadn’t expected. His description of the scene of a soldier dying in the hospital has many of the hallmarks of Whitman's greatest poetry—the ease with which he can construct a lilting cadence, his attention to meter despite not working in traditional form, his ability to expand and describe what might seem minutiae—and almost reads like a draft of a poem.

MA 517, page 9: Fragment from Walt Whiman's Civil War diary: autograph manuscript, 1863 May 26–1868 Feb. 4.

Now with the speed of a mill race—his splendid neck, as it lays all open, works still, slightly—his eyes turn back—a religious person coming in offers a prayer in subdued tones—around the foot of the bed and in the space of the aisle, a crowd: including two or three doctors, several students and many soldiers[,] has already gathered—it is very still, and warm, as the struggle goes on, and dwindles—a little more, and a little more—and then cold, welcome oblivion, painlessness, death. A pause—the crowd drops away—a white bandage is bound around, and under the jaw—the propping pillows are removed—the limpsy head falls down, the arms are softly placed by the side, all composed, all still—and the broad white sheet is thrown over everything.

Passages like this make it easy to see why Whitman has inspired such a devoted following in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, particularly among many of the modernist poets whose work I'm studying for my dissertation. Whitman had a broad and deep influence on several linguistic traditions, but my dissertation involves primarily writers who worked in English, Spanish, and French, and I can now, armed with a more vivid picture of him after reading through the war diary and his letters to the English writer Anne Gilchrist, compare him more precisely with Charles Baudelaire, arguably his most influential contemporary among French poets.

Apart from the mostly pure aesthetic pleasure that comes out of the close encounter with beautiful drawings and watercolor paintings and amazingly neat, legible, consistent handwriting, as in Doyle, or the wild sprawl of Whitman's autograph (a word that can mean“handwriting” broadly, not just “signature”), I immensely enjoyed how reading these manuscripts repeatedly forces you to confront the fact that, despite what you might tell yourself, you don’t yet—and maybe never will—have a good grasp on another human mind or personality. Though Doyle and Whitman are very distinct from each other in many ways, their personalities both contain many challenging paradoxes and contradictions that become clearer (if still elusive) as you consult more and more of these sorts of materials. The mental labor of trying to imagine daily life in 1840s London and 1860s Washington and immerse oneself in that reality despite sitting in a very well-appointed library in midtown Manhattan was very much my kind of fun, too. I left The Morgan each day with a bit of culture shock from my reading and was grateful for that gift.

Michael Healy is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY, studying modernism in English, Spanish, and French.